Thursday, 6 December 2012

Dead Man’s Switch written by John Dorney & Richard Dinnick and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s this about: 26 years ago, a team of scientists came to a moon to unearth the secrets of a long-dead civilisation. They were later found to have died in what the authorities called an anti-matter explosion. Alone and desperate, Bernice Summerfield will do anything to get back home. But where is home? The capital world of Zordin seems to offer the only chance of answers, but that’s a long way away. The offer of a job could be her best way of paying for the voyage but… archaeology is illegal… and there’s a quarantine… and she’ll have to leap from a spacecraft in orbit. But what does that matter? On a world guarded by armed satellites and patrolled by defence drones on the surface, Benny’s going to have to use all her knowledge, skill and wits. And that’s just to get there! Because it’s not the moon itself that’s the problem. It’s what happened there; what remains there; what might escape. What matters? Nothing.

Archeological Adventuress: Its so wonderful to hear Bernice writing her diary again after so long although she does initially think of framing her thoughts in a letter to Peter but her prolonged separation from him is still too raw. She’s desperately homesick and trapped in a sector that she is still trying to come to terms with. We’ve never quite seen the character this dislocated from everything that makes her feel safe before. Flying through the atmosphere, Bernice begins to find the fun in extreme sports and its nice to see her let her hair (and her body) down for a moment and enjoy herself. A series with an anxious Benny always on the run would be gripping but it would lose the essence that this series is supposed to provide entertaining. Bernice is not one to give up without a fight and fires all manner of plans at Otek so he can let go of the button but she forgets that he has been in that position for over two decades and that’s plenty of time to think through anything she could come up with in five minutes. Why is it that everybody that gives Bernice a job these days always seems to have a hidden objective? She’s such a trusting soul but I would get the pretence out of the way straight away and ask them what their real motive is before setting off. She doesn’t know if Peter is dead or alive, it’s a really sore subject and so when Otek says it was careless of her to lose him she loses her cool for a moment. During the climax Benny channels the fifth Doctor (‘Sorry must dash!’). It genuinely feels like this might be the end for Bernice, trapped in a cold place with no friends to aid her and consumed by the merciless nothing from another universe. Imagine if they dared to end the series at this point (eleven seasons is a breakaway hit by anyone’s standards), stripping away everything that makes the character and then killing her. Of course that isn’t the case but at the point where Benny believes she is slipping away her thoughts turn to Peter and how she, like Otek and his daughter, will never know what sort of adult he would mature into. Its achingly poignant and I found myself trying to will her survival just so she could be reunited with him.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Please follow me. Because if you do you have far less chance of destroying the universe.’
‘When nothing gets in, everything goes…

Great Ideas: After a season of game changing stories that have kept the series constantly in flux it is refreshing to start a story on a refreshingly old school note of a distress call on a distant planet that Benny needs to investigate. Year Zero is constantly being referenced as a reminder of the new arrangement of the series. An anti matter explosion wiping out an archaeological expedition in a universe where unearthing the past is outlawed…it could be a severe reaction to the crime or perhaps something sinister and important was about to be disclosed. Its certainly an appetite whetter, I was as intrigued as Bernice. There’s nice chemistry between Otek and the robot that reminded me strongly of the 4th Doctor and K.9, his prissy attitude and unhelpful suggestions are met with a general disdain by the prisoner Its how I imagine 70s Who could have been if it was broadcast post-watershed. Even for Benny, getting to the heart of the problem in ten minutes flat is quite an accomplishment. Being told that releasing a button could destroy the entire universe is quite an enticing notion – who wouldn’t want to test that out and pull Otek’s arm away? In this case I would urge on the side of caution, the universe has recently been renovated to a new design so a suggestion as apparently fatuous as this could be true. A people that vanished completely but left their technology intact – its hardly surprising that Otek’s team wanted to peer beneath the surface of this planet and crack the mystery (and possibly obtain some of their knowledge). Stealing the technology of dead races and claiming it as your own is deeply immoral, I would love for this character to meet one of the more morally strict Doctors. Wormholes revolutionising interstellar travel. A universe of silence posing as an anti matter explosion. Dorney & Dinnick introduce some wonderful ideas in Otek’s exposition scene, enough to give muscle to an entire season of Benny stories back in the day. Otek has been holding down the button to keep the ‘nothing’ in its own universe, otherwise it would spread and consume ours. Otek’s letters to his wife and daughter are chokingly emotional, you realise precisely what he has given up to keep them safe. Its devastating to think that he has missed the best days of his daughters childhood and that his wife must have moved on with her life. His quiet acceptance that they will no longer be waiting for him is heartbreaking. How gorgeous is the parallel between Peter’s potential survival and Schrodinger’s Cat? Creatures that feed on anti-matter might just be one of the most terrifying that Bernice has ever faced but Matka’s motivation is based on maternal instinct which gives things a satisfyingly poignant edge. Bernice can empathise with her need to protect her young but at the same time she has to make her understand that her misunderstanding of the circumstances could lead to catastrophic results. It means that either way this is going to end badly which is made out of pure win in dramatic terms. That Time Ring has been nothing but trouble ever since the Doctor first gave it to Bernice, its passing as a way to satiate the appetite of the ‘nothing’ is a particularly gratifying in this respect. Its her last link to her own universe being severed. Perhaps her dealings with Braxiatel have rubbed off on her, trapping the planet in a 20-second time loop to force feed the nothing an endless banquet of time is exactly the sort of grandiose and intelligent scheme that he would come up with.

Standout Scene: There are lots of contending moments throughout this story but the concluding scene that sees Benny wrap up one mystery and warp head first into another proves that her solo adventures are going to be unrelenting. Just why has Earth been renamed Atlantis? Has the lives of everybody on the home planet been rewritten? Check out the Epoch box set to find out.

A quick word to Adrian Salmon who’s unforgettable artwork has been of an extremely high quality throughout and unique to the series. From the next box set onwards there is more of a cinematic, movie poster look to the covers of the series. It might be nice to utilise some actual photographic images of the characters and some of the imagery is gorgeous but the overall feel of the new covers is something that has been photoshopped to death. Salmon’s unique spiky art always manages to produce something that is far more memorable and striking. I will really miss his input into the series because its one of things that makes it really stand out. 

Result: Dead Man’s Switch opens with Benny writing her diary and heading off to solve a mystery and for a moment you might think that the universe has returned to normal after its dramatic reformation at the end of Escaping the Future. However this is just to lull the unsuspecting listener into a false sense of security before the writers plunge Benny into a fascinating and intricate adventure that is based on a Phone Booth style ‘how the hell are they going to maintain that?’ scenario. Both Dorney and Dinnick were relative newcomers when this was released but its clear from the quality of the writing that they were going to go on to greater things. They have managed to tell an old style economical Bernice tale (like Year Zero it has to make up for the blockbusting cast of the opening two parter) that never feels like a cheap production because they are juggling some terrifyingly huge ideas and manage to give the few characters real depth by exploiting the motivations behind their actions (Otek trying to save a family that has forgotten him and Matka potentially bringing about the end of the universe to save her children). Both characters come to a sticky and leave behind loved ones that will suffer for their passing leaving Benny to clean up the mess. Bernice is once again written as a really smart character, stripping away her comfort zone has forced her to think on her feet and rely on her significant intelligence. Eddie Robson deserves massive kudos for pulling together four unforgettable stories to make the strongest (and a near flawless) season yet and John Ainsworth has directed each tale magnificently, proving equally adept at producing epic and diminutive stories to a very high standard. I hope they were both extremely proud of what they accomplished this season. Bernice is more determined to find Peter than ever before, the series has been reshaped to make that her mission: 9/10

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